In the frontlines: Encountering and learning from the Poor
Jesuit Refugee Service mission in Maban, Upper Nile State as from its motto is to Accompany, Advocate and Serve refugees, internally displaced people and to a certain extent the host community. At the heart of this serve is the firm commitment of walking accompanying and advocating for the anawims “the poor of Yahweh.” The accompaniment and closeness to the marginalized requires going out to the places where others find difficult to go. And poses challenges of adoption of lifestyle that provides the bear minimum for existence, harsh weather and insecurity, all these hardships you bear as part of the credibility of witnessing.
When I arrived in Maban last year in September to begin my work with JRS as pastoral coordinator, it was just a month after a major riot and vandalism that had seen destruction of lots of property belonging to many of the NGOs including JRS by the local youth. The mood on the ground was tense. You could smell the tension in the air, the weather was not helping either, it was hot and dusty. The place resembled a ghost town. There were many thoughts that ran through my mind: Where on earth I am? Am I in the right place? What am I doing this place? These emotions of apprehension, tension, anxiety, fear of the unknown can lead one to paranoia. Finding answers to all these questions is not easy task. I had reconnect in a deeper level, I had to find answers in the spiritual exercises, Ignatian spirituality and examination of conscience. The prayer of Ignatius “Lord teach me to toil without counting the cost but of knowing I am doing your will” has been most consoling at this particular time. Almost a year later am a still toiling in the Lord’s vineyard!
I have taught the catechists, taught school children, celebrated the Eucharist just to mention a few of the activities that we do. Have I had any successes? Hardly any I can think of. In retrospect I have learnt more than I have given myself. I have come to see myself as not rendering a service but rather the whole experience as an encounter between equals and loved sinners yet called on an earthly journey and on pilgrimage towards God. The poor have given me a crash course on inter-cultural dialogue, negotiations, and most importantly patience.
Graces: the occurrences of daily life such as communal tensions, insecurity leaves one unscathed sometime by the perceived hopelessness of the situation and I find myself everyday living with the tension between despair and hope, hardship and patience. what has kept me afloat is the total surrender to God and his will. The cognizance of the limitations of being human humbles and grounds you. It gives you a lucid sense of compassion for your fellow human beings. The people we serve are essentially human persons: flesh and blood, with emotions and feelings and cannot be defined by the accidents of nature such as being a refugee, poor and marginalized. Thus, we are offering an encounter and not a service and they help us in the salvation of our souls.
Simplicity and Generosity
Simplicity of life, hope, resilience and faith of people in Maban puts you to shame. And it is this closeness to the poor and the separation from some of the amenities that we take for granted in our cities and towns forces you sit back and reflect. The experience strips you of your pride and humbles you. It goes against your ego in a materialistic culture where excesses are the norm. For instance, the joy of being offered a cup of water on a hot-sunny day, a marriage ceremony where only coffee or tea is served after mass, the sharing of baptismal candles during Baptisms, and having to baptize over 300 candidates during Easter opens one’s eyes to see events with deeper interior eyes and patience that all events are governed by a God who is active and alive. It transforms your identity and makes you come to terms with Christ redemptive power and a call to share with others.
Culture and Reintegration
Walking and working with and for local community necessitates the awareness of the intersection, creative tension between Christian faith and cultural values. The cross pollination and implicit dialogue between the two traditions in liturgical celebrations and in communal life is vivid every day. Discussions of the place of women and girls in the society can be both tiring and rewarding in a society that is patriarchal. It teaches one to be patient, learn negotiating skills and interpersonal relationships with one’s interlocutors. In all this hope, faith and resilience are part and parcel of people’s life as they resettle, reintegrate and rebuild their lives. At the end of the day our call is to accompany, serve, advocate and live with the poor as through this we learn sharing and the spirit of generosity and magnanimity. After all, at the end of the day there is always song and dance to mark the occasion.